The two-month sail of a fleet of six vessels belonging to the Australian Navy, which started on September 4 this year, became a very remarkable event in the geopolitical game in the South China Sea, in which all leading world powers are being gradually drawn.
Already identified among journalistic circles as the “Small Armada”, it looks quite serious, as it includes a new helicopter landing carrier with a displacement of about 30,000 tons, four frigates and a tanker. Even the US has never hit this record number of warships deployed to the SCS at one go.
The natural question arises: Why in the world is Australia eager to flaunt its muscles in the most prominent area of the global political stage, occupying a role that is far from being a primary one? The official statements on this issue are not very informative, as their central point echo the mantras that have been sung in recent years about the need to observe the “freedom of navigation” and “international law” in the SCS.
Meanwhile, in a more general way, the above-mentioned issue has been a big deal to Australia almost since the beginning of the previous century. At the outbreak of the First World War, its zeal was a necessity to the motherland and, apparently, even then, the descendants of the colonists began wondering what on earth they had left behind at the other side of the globe.
In recent decades, the same issue has arisen in connection with Australia’s active participation in some military adventures (Iraq, Afghanistan) of a new “motherland” with its capital in Washington. The SCS is much closer to Australia than Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it is difficult to notice any obvious threat to its national interest as well.
Trade communications with the Middle East, Africa, the United States and Latin America are running really far from the SCS. As for the long-standing territorial issues between the riparian countries bordering the SCS, again, it is not clear how this could affect the interests of Australia.
There is not even the slightest chance that there might be any hindrance to the trade between Canberra and its key partner, Beijing, which sells 80% of the extracted Australian iron ore. An extremely profitable trade with China is one of the main reasons of Australia’s economic prosperity.
The artificial islands built by the PRC in the SCS with some certain military facilities, even theoretically, cannot touch upon the sphere of the Sino-Australian economic relations. If suddenly (and it is not clear why), Beijing needs to dramatically complicate them, then it will be enough just not to prolong some certain agreements and interrupt the ongoing negotiations. For this, the islands do not necessarily have to be constructed on the trade routes.
Meanwhile, an opposite trend has emerged in the bilateral economic relations, namely, the blocking by Canberra of Beijing’s apparent interest in investing in some sectors of Australian industry that are designated as “strategically important“, to which China reacted somewhat like: “If you don’t like our dollars, find a better source of them”.
On the whole, in the bilateral relations, nothing has been observed in recent years that would require the organization of a long trip (quite definitely very costly) for the “Small Armada” in the region, which is extremely sensitive to the key, and we repeat, trading partner Australia.
The only more or less reasonable argument in favor of such an event is Australia’s membership in the ANZUS bloc, formed in 1951 with the participation of the United States and New Zealand at the height of the Cold War.
Despite the serious tensions that have arisen between Washington and Canberra in the middle of the last decade due to the different interpretation of the issue of binding Australia to a (hypothetical) US-China conflict over Taiwan, the latter remains interested in continuing allied relations with the United States. The certain manifestation of such an interest cannot be solely platonic, and certain real actions are needed that demonstrate a willingness to provide all possible assistance to the “older brother” in its global confrontation with China. One of the key areas of such confrontation (SCS) is located next to Australia.
To its (Australia’s) inconvenience, as it (area) is a part of the vital interests map of the main, we repeat, trading partner of Australia. But skipping here the fulfilment of the allied obligations to the United States would not look exactly “gentlemanly” for her.
In addition, despite the fact that the secret post of the “deputy sheriff” is being gradually transferred to the much more powerful Japan, Australia continues to consider itself obliged to “keep order” in the region as well as to respond to calls for help from the “offended” here.
This was clearly expressed in 2016 by Indonesia, which showed an interest in cooperation with Australia in the field of defence. However, the process of establishing the Australian-Indonesian military cooperation was interrupted in November of the same year due to a misunderstanding at the grass-roots level during the joint training of the special forces of both countries.
The fact that the first point of the visit of the fleet of Australian ships was the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, should have witnessed the exhaustion of the consequences of the incident a year ago and the resumption of bilateral cooperation in the field of defense.
In deciding on the campaign of the “Small Armada”, the motive to the very fact of its existence also carries weight. Just for the construction of the two “Canberra” class helicopter landing carriers (one of which is participating in the campaign), Australia spent USD 3 billion. And how about the operation? The renovations?
Such expensive toys should be “attached” to any significant political issue. The need to respect the “freedom of navigation” and “international law” in the SCS – is it not a worthless area of their application?
By the way, the idea of an active military presence in the SCS was voiced during the visit of Boris Johnson to Australia, held in late July. Johnson spoke in favor of sending to the SCS the British aircraft carrier “Queen Elizabeth”, which is now at the stage of sea trials. However, by the sound of things, the amount of knowledge of the eccentric head of the British Foreign Ministry in this area does not go beyond the “colossal size similar to the size of the Westminster Palace” of the future aircraft carrier. It is likely that a clarifying conversation was held with the high officials on the state of the “Queen Elizabeth” and on how much the ship would cost. Apparently, having made an important discovery for himself, Johnson “backed down”, saying that so far nothing had been decided.
More specifically, a month later, British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke during her visit to Japan. But from what she said, it followed that it could be a question of sending to the APR (“at the end of 2018″) of not the newest aircraft carrier, but just a ten times smaller frigate built in 1987.
As for the behavior of the Australian squadron in the SCS, so far, it looks quite reserved and not explicitly provocative to China, whose reaction is closer to being bewilderingly ironic. The right to “bully” the PRC by organizing visits of warships to 12-mile zones around artificial islands the local “allies” give to their leader, the United States.
For, with a particularly insistent desire, it is possible to burry a lot of expensive “armadas” sunk in the SCS. Both small and large.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”